Orthodoxy: A Fertile Faith

When a recent coffee hour conversation turned, unexpectedly, to politics and what if anything the Church has to say about public issues and then all of the “God talk” in the current presidential contest, a friend said, “Oh, that’s politics. The Orthodox Church shouldn’t get involved in politics. Nothing good can come of it.”

Well, yes and no.

If we’re talking about partisan politics then yes, of course, the Church must stay out of it. The Church was not founded to endorse candidates for office or advance a political ideology. But if we’re talking about the political dimensions of important moral issues, then yes, of course, the Church may quite properly speak to these. Did we notice that there is something going on in California about marriage? Were political institutions involved? Do we recall the 2003 Statement on Moral Crisis on Our Nation issued by SCOBA?

I wonder if some Orthodox Christians wish that the faith could somehow remain removed from politics and other worldly issues. That it stand apart, a walled-off sphere of piety that you visit for a couple hours a week as if you were visiting some sort of Museum of Religion. To be clear about it, the Church does not exist to issue opinions about every political or policy question under the sun, nor is it competent to do so. But on significant moral questions, it’s voice must be heard. Does that drag the Body of Christ into the mud of politics? Here’s a better way to ask the question: Is abortion a political issue? (Remember something called Roe v. Wade?) How about war, or poverty, or the death penalty, or business ethics, or pornography, or the morality of popular culture. Any of these affected by politics?

I have a theory, or really just a hunch, about the reticence among some Orthodox Christians to discuss political or policy issues through the lens of Church teaching. Maybe it’s because these discussions will lead to conclusions and positions that look a lot like those of other conservative Christian groups. Dare I say it? The Christian Right. Wouldn’t that throw the Orthodox in with the wrong sort of conservatives? What would our progressive co-members at the National Council of Churches say to such an unvarnished display of conservative sentiment? Where is the nuance!

In his “455 Questions and Answers” book, published by Light & Life in 1987, Fr. Stanley Harakas took on the subject of the Moral Majority, and the lack of support among Orthodox Christians for its programs. But, paradoxically, he also pointed out how many of its moral positions on issues were consistent with the moral tradition of Orthodoxy. A clear divergence, however, was the Moral Majority’s uncritical support for Israel, something that Fr. Stanley said is opposed by many Greek, Lebanese and Arab Orthodox Christians.

He concludes his observation with this:

The main point I have tried to make is that I think that it is time we Orthodox Christians formed our own organization to speak to these public moral issues from an Orthodox Christian perspective. I would very much like to hear from priests and lay people about this idea.

Well, Fr. Stanley, your wish has come true. The American Orthodox Institute was founded “to speak to these public moral issues from an Orthodox Christian perspective.”

Olivier Clement, in an essay published in 1973, warns us against an “orientalized” or ritualistic conception of the Church:

The Orthodox Church again is by no means a museum of the first thousand years of Christianity. The dimension of fatherhood, so strong in Orthodoxy (which, thank God, frees it from any evolutionist idea of Tradition) may tempt her to think that the Fathers have said everything and that is only remains to repeat them. This doubtless explains the excessive confidence of some prelates for whom truth is an object possessed. But Father Florovsky reminded us, on the occasion of the fifth centenary of Palamas, that the notion of ‘father’ is not at all limited to the period called ‘Patristic,’ that Saint Gregory Palamas was a ‘Church Father’ in the fourteenth century, and The Fathers beget us in the faith that we in our turn might become fathers, that is free creators, in the continuity of the same Spirit. The word of the Fathers is a logos spermatikos: it does not crush, it fertilizes.

You fertilize things that are alive and growing. You do not fertizile things that are dead or petrified. And if the Tradition is to make sense to us in the here and now, we must till the soil and plant the seeds of a living faith. It is a big garden. It is not a museum.

A note to readers: The AOI team is preparing to launch an all new Web site for Clarion Review, with new features and exclusive online content. We are also working on a redesign of the main site, less than a year from its initial launch. The Monitor, the new AOI newsletter which will debut in the coming days, already has a hundreds of readers opting in for free subscriptions (you can sign up on the AOI main page), And you will see this blog is expanding its reach with new writers and timely posts on Orthodox Christian life in the “public square.” Stay tuned!


  1. Fr Gregory Jensen :


    I did read the statement by SCOBA, both when it came out and a moment ago, and to be honest I found it lacking. Yes certainly it summarized the Orthodox understanding of marriage but it fails to address the central question: Should the state sanction same sex marriages or not? As written the statement is not even clear as to the answer to this most fundamental question.

    Yes the bishops express their “deep concern over recent developments.” And yes, they tell us that they “pray fervently that the traditional form of marriage, as an enduring and committed union only between a man and a woman, will be honored.” But they fail to say what the state should do in response to the desire for some to extend marriage to same sex couples. Given that the recent Pew Charitable Trust survey suggest, many a Orthodox Christians do not think with the Church on this question, it becomes not only politically, but pastorally imperative, that the Church respond more clearly to those who would challenge and even reject, the “divine purpose” of marriage.

    The statement also fails in my reading of it to respond to the fact that in the eyes of many, the “normalize, legalize and even sanctify same-sex unions” is no way a betrayal of marriage as either a religious or civil institution. The rhetoric is quite the opposite; for those who advocate same sex marriage,extending marriage to a new class of citizens through its legalization is presented as a strengthening of marriage as a cultural, and indeed religious and specifically Christian, institution.

    Appealing to the Constitutional separation of church and state, advocates of smae-sex marriage argue that (as with abortion rights) changes in the law will in no way infringe on either the rights of those who oppose same-sex marriage or represents an assault on the traditional understanding of marriage. They simply wish to extend a legal right to the disenfranchised. The bishops’ statement, appealing as it does simply to Orthodox faith and practice, fails to respond to the actually argument that the legalization of same-sex marriage is matter of social justice. In failing to respond, the statement concedes the issue and leaves the reader with the impression that the Church has nothing to contribute to the debate past that which pertains to our own narrowly defined interests.

    The bishops’ statement leaves a number of issues unaddressed, it is in it conclusion that it fails most. By not engaging the arguments made by the advocates of same-sex, the statement does nothing to change the terms of the debate. While there is a laudable attempt to reach out pastorally to homosexuals (“persons with a homosexual orientation are to be cared for with the same mercy and love that is bestowed by our Lord Jesus Christ upon all of humanity. All persons are called by God to grow spiritually and morally toward holiness.) it does so in language that it could used, and in fact is often used, by any advocate of same sex marriage.

    I agree with your thesis that Orthodox social witness is lacking. When, as with the SOCBA statement you referenced, we do make a statement it is hard for me to shake the thought that (however inadvertently) we are presenting ourselves as merely one pressure among others. While there is nothing dogmatically or ethically unsound in the statement, as a whole it reads (to me at least) more as a pro forma sectarian statement then a prophetic witness to the Gospel. Save for the fact that I am an Orthodox Christian who takes his faith and the teaching office of the bishops seriously–the statement offers me no reason to take seriously the teaching it is putting forward.

    If we are to speak to the ethical concerns of the day, we must learn to do so in a idiom that can touch the hearts and minds of men and women of good will. Truth be told, we probably would do well to begin with making sure that our own faithful, and especially our lay leaders and clergy are themselves committed to the Church’s moral witness. We have not done the former, and I suspect we have also left undone the latter.

    In Christ,

    +Fr Gregory Jensen

  2. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Very good points Fr. Gregory, especially the implicit conclusion that we Orthodox, including many in our hierarchy, are as confused on the issue as the rest of the culture. In fact, I heard a bishop say last year that while homosexual marriage would not be sanctioned in the Orthodox Church, the prohibition did not apply to the rest of society. Clearly his thinking was bound to the shifting ideas of the larger culture, particularly the notion that moral norms are largely a private affair with no communal ramifications whatsoever.

    I’m not sure what it would take to awaken the culture to the dangers of our moral untethering — probably more suffering. I fear this however, because the suffering hits the innocent the worst. Unfortunately, if the present example of our moral leadership is any indication, you can bet we will be caught short in our attempts to explain why we (ostensibly) believe what we do about these critical issues when we are asked.

    Thus I agree with your overall assessment of the SCOBA document against homosexual marriage. It is good to see the Orthodox say something about it, but where is the depth? — where are the references to any substantive thought about it? I’m not sure there is any.

    What to do? We need to get to work. That is one reason why AOI was established. The talent in Orthodox circles is very impressive as you know. The frustration with our poor moral and social witness is very high. Hopefully AOI can provide the venue for creative engagement with these critical questions by people qualified to address them, particularly in the spirit you offered above, as “a prophetic witness to the Gospel.”

  3. From an Orthodox point of view, there are two issues worth considering.

    First, the ethics of the Orthodox Church is supposed to flow from its theology. Theology and morality are never to be autonomous, as is often the case in this kind of debates. In this sense, agreement with the conservatives that argue against certain practices from a moral point of view, is not helpful, because the rich theology which morality should serve is lost in the polarization of the debate.

    Second, because the ethics of the Orthodox Church serves a certain theology, we shouldn’t think to ourselves that it applies to those that do not want to follow that theology, to those that do not want to be Orthodox Christians. This saying of Paul “For what have I to do with judging outsiders?” is profoundly meaningful.

    To sum up, contrary to popular conservative religious thinking, morality in Orthodox theology is not autonomous but flows from Orthodox theology and serves those who want to enter into the relationship with God the Orthodox Church offers. This means that imposing our morality on others is a theological mistake, one we should be aware of.

  4. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Andrew, I am not sure some of your points are true. Yes, morality flows from theology, but what does this really mean? Morality is not a legal code but a manner of living, a way of seeing, a choosing of one act over that draws from a hierarchy of values that have real and concrete ramifications in everyday life. Theology, then, must be defined existentially in this context — not so much as a statement of how we should live (as valuable as that might be), but as we really live.

    This might be implicit in your statement. However, it is also true of the way everyone lives already, even those who affirm homosexual marriage, abortion — any position that would violate Orthodox moral teaching. In other words, morality always flows from a theological vision of some sort or another, no matter how underdeveloped that vision might be or how unaware a person might be that he even possesses a vision of this kind.

    The polarization then, arises not because the Orthodox have a developed theology and the advocates of homosexual marriage do not. It arises because both positions already reference a theological matrix of some kind or another that are fundamentally in conflict with each other. We see this in the arguments that defend homosexual marriage (the “rights” arguments) that have a certain moral force because they reference and draw from this deeper well.

    Thus, the statement…

    Second, because the ethics of the Orthodox Church serves a certain theology, we shouldn’t think to ourselves that it applies to those that do not want to follow that theology, to those that do not want to be Orthodox Christians.

    while true on a superficial level, does not really work in real life. The fact is that because the arguments for homosexual marriage employ the “rights” language, they draw from the well that traditional Christianity shaped and informed. In other words, the arguments that ostensibly affirms homosexual marriage as a logical extension of human freedom, have their source in the received moral tradition. This is why they have moral power in the larger culture.

    Withdrawal from the debate then, is not an option — not at least if we value the freedom (social and moral) that God gives every man and woman. I agree with your implicit conclusion that the politics is not the battlefield on which this conflict will be resolved — not because politics is unimportant (clearly it is, especially in a democracy), but because politics always functions as a lagging cultural indicator. Politics follows culture, not the other way around.

    Where do we go from here then? I don’t think we really know (again, this is one of the reasons AOI was created). We need to resolve many questions such as: Is secularism a heresy (does it function culturally as past heresies functioned, that is, does it posit a false anthropology?); how do we speak to these vexing moral issues apart from and outside of radical political polarization; how do we recover the relationship between freedom and morality that the American Founding Fathers grasped (a point captured by such moral thinkers as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, see: A World Split Apart). Orthodox theologians reference the necessity for engagement as well, see: Christos Yannaras in “The Freedom of Morality”, Fr. Alexander Schmemann in The Task of Orthodox Theology in America Today, or Fr. Stanley Harakas’ call referenced above.

    My view is that the crisis is fundamentally anthropological. Recovering Genesis is a good place to begin.

  5. Hm, I’m not convinced…

    This is how I see it. If one’s contribution in the debate is that same-sex marriage is sinful, this sounds to me like saying “They are sinful”. This “You are sinful” reverts the traditional Orthodox way of “dealing” with sin, i.e. “I am sinful”. This change from “I am sinful” to “They are sinful” is problematic.

    Without suggesting that this is the intention of those who take a stance in the public debate, I do think this is not helpful. A more helpful approach would be to explore our personal passions, realize our sinfulness, and speak about our personal poverty. That way, if others resonate with what we are saying, then our theology can bring some fruit in their lives.

    What good is imposing one’s morality if passions remain unhealed?

  6. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    The problem is that your objection could be applied to any moral prohibition. Take adultery for example. Do we remain silent because the adulterer might be uncomfortable with his sinfulness? Do we have to be passionless before we can say adultery is sinful — especially given that our theology teaches that freedom from the passions is a life-long journey realized only in the eschaton?

    As for “imposing one’s morality,” well, moral norms have a coercive function. They prohibit certain behaviors. That’s one of the functions of a moral norm. Would you tolerate a thief breaking into you house and threatening your children? Probably not. Most likely you would call the police. Thievery breaks a commandment, a moral norm (to the extent is still exists), and the law, and I doubt you would have any problem affirming that prohibition despite how the thief might feel.

    My hunch is that your objection deals more with your own discomfort than the discomfort of the homosexual activist. I am not advocating a slash and burn condemnation of the homosexual here, by the way. However, given that I do not believe that the public square should be shorn of all arguments that draw from the received moral tradition, I can’t accept the assertion either that one must be free of all passion before one possesses any credibility to speak.

  7. I think Fr Hans that you put your finger on the issue raised not only by same sex marriage (SSM), but a host of other moral issues in both the social and private realms. What we are seeing is conflicting anthropological visions. What divides us is our differing understandings of what it means to be human.

    But if we are suffering from divergent anthropological visions, might we find some relief and even possible areas of reconciliation if we seek the point at which these vision converge (if they do at all). The danger of polarization is that we intentionally turn away from any common ground. The genius of the American experiment is that the new secular order was radical without being polarized–the Founding Fathers found common anthropological ground even if that common ground was small.

    Looking forward to more conversations on AOI and seeing its work grow.

Care to Comment?