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Why I am Not a Good Ethicist

Fr. Jonathan Tobias

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For one reason or another, I receive essays on ethics for perusal. The day before yesterday, my e-mail program announced, with a ding, the odd arrival of an old article from the Boston Review, written by a man who claims Orthodoxy now as his "faith tradition," having been drawn out of Roman Catholicism about a decade ago.

There is much to commend in the article. Its complaints about racism and consumerism won nods from my stiff neck. It faithfully affirmed Fr. Alexander Schmemann's definition of secularism (i.e., reducing religion to a particular "department" of life). It discussed the reality of the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ, and how we Christians are transformed by that singular transformation.

But the nods soon faded into sighs. The obligatory "I personally think that abortion is appalling" vote was cast, but it was quickly conditioned by an acceptance of the doctrines of privacy and individual freedom. There was the old saw about the abortion rate increasing during Reagan's years, but decreasing during Clinton's (I'm not sure what point is being made here).

There was that equally tiring saw about how there just isn't any political party to suit the Orthodox taste.

I am troubled that there is no political home for my consistent ethic of life, but I also take comfort in the knowledge that electoral politics is not all there is to politics. If Chesterton's idea of an America with the soul of a church has any validity, I believe it lies in our tradition of voluntary activity, through which faith can mobilize people to participate in the long and difficult grassroots struggle to transform our communities into a more just and peaceful society.

Well, yes, I have looked for a party for a long time, and there is just no Eagle and Child to be found in Pittsburgh. And who can argue against the need for voluntarism? Everyone, and not just Christian voices, knows that we should do more for the poor, the powerless, and all of Creation. Yes, yes, yes, by all means, we should attend to the "liturgy between the liturgies," we should attend to the altars of the suffering poor on the streets outside the Temple.

That will never change. "The poor you will always have with you." We should build houses in New Orleans, serve the soup lines in our boweries, and clear up the mess in Greenfield, Kansas. We should take care of addicts, protect children, feed the hungry on the other side of the world and the working poor in our town, and preserve families.

No one doubts this. I certainly don't. But what sets me apart from most of my ethicist brethren (and sistren) is that I also do not doubt that the poor we will always have with us. We will never end poverty, or war, or injustice. We wait for the Messiah, and work whilst it remains day, for the night is coming, and the harvest is great.

I believe, coming out of my "faith tradition" as I do, that the main reason why we feed the hungry here is not to acclimate them to the world, but to help lead them into the next.

Yes, and I'm sure we should probably do more about justice, but I am not nearly as confident about the particularities of political struggles and social justice as are my professional colleagues in ethics. I am confused when hierarchs like +Archbishop Iakovos (of thrice-blessed memory) are applauded when they walk with Martin Luther King, but other hierarchs are denigrated, with those sherry-and-canape academic harrumphs, when they are seen slumming with the National Right to Life March.

I am quite sure about the pro-life movement as an appropriate movement for Christian political involvement, as it is a clear moment of ecclesial prophecy. In all of its phases -- anti-eugenics, anti-abortion, pro-decent provision for the fatherless and single-mothers, and anti-euthanasia (or, more accurately, anti-"geriatricide") -- the Orthodox ethic is clear.

I'm not sure that such clarity is achieved in other, more radically chic, political endeavors. For example, I do not think that the politics of homosexual liberation has any place in an Orthodox prophetic witness. Neither do I think that the gender politics of inclusive language or female ordination have anything to do with justice, in the Christian sense (perhaps it has something to do with other senses).

The problem here is a tension that emerges not from what Albert Raboteau said in his rather fine article, but from what he didn't say. And here, I should mention that I'm picking on Raboteau mainly because of the esteem I've felt for him since his old interview with Franky Schaeffer in the Christian Activist (that erstwhile, occasional magazine whose publication schedule was a Messianic secret). Raboteau said, in his Boston Review piece, that he was drawn to Orthodoxy because of deeply-felt affinities between his African experience of "joyful sorrow," and the same experience in the Apostolic Church of the ancient East.

Yes, yes, and yes. I agree with all my heart. But what I disagree with here is that Raboteau failed to proclaim the substance, the salient point of the Orthodox ethic and the prophetic witness of the Kingdom of God:

We do not protest injustice (in the Marxist manner).

We do protest wickedness and sin.

We are against slavery and abortion not primarily because they are oppressive acts of socio-economic bondage and tyranny against the powerless. We oppose these bad things (and many others) mainly because they are unclean works of the devil ... because they are evil and demonic, not because they deprive the meek of material goods.

We do not primarily affirm social justice.

We affirm, instead, holiness and spiritual peace through Jesus Christ, and in His Communion.

Oddly enough, in Raboteau's article, and in the essays of most Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and even conservative Protestant ethicists, there is very little mention of the word "sin." There is just as patent an aversion to the word "holiness."

It may be that there has been a decline of the frequency of these horrid old-fashioned and patriarchal terms concurrent with the decline of the place of metaphysics in the intellectual agora. With the loss of divinity as an acceptable referent in polite conversation, the only terms that can be pronounced are jaundiced words like "ethics," or, my favorite, "faith tradition."

There is a common push toward the recovery of a "patristic worldview" in the Orthodox and Roman realms, and even in the Protestant constellation. There is, in this worldview (a term probably too hard for the Fathers to understand), an affirmation of a sacramental or liturgical lifestyle, even an "eschatological ethos." Under these rubrics, it seems that old-fashioned words like "sin" and "evil" have been modified into more progressive meanings (like "oppressive," or "insensitive," or "patriarchal," or "colonial").

The odd thing, here, is that those very Fathers who are the source of things patristic were quite firm (and offensive) in their use of the word "sinful" and "wicked." St. John Chrysostom, as is well known, railed against the rich and their failure to give to the poor, but he also railed against their failure to attend Divine Liturgy regularly. He protested against the Empress, to be sure, but his protest was against her rather self-serving silver statue, not against her wars.

His social protest and the sum of his ethics -- like that of all the Fathers -- were aimed against wickedness, and he and they urged Christians to attain holiness and piety.

A real, Orthodox ethic might agree with an article like that of Professor Raboteau (and with the articles of many other salon Orthodox writers, Yannaras amongst them). Yes, the environment should be cared for. Yes, the hungry should be fed and the poor sheltered. Yes, racial prejudice should be suppressed. Yes, hurricanes, tsunamis and tornadoes should be responded to with great generosity.

But you could read this sort of thing from anywhere. Tony Campolo and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops say the same thing -- that your sense of social justice and politics should be informed by your Sunday morning identity.

But an Orthodox ethic shouldn't even be called an "ethic." "Ethics," by itself, has to do with a false dichotomy between action and knowledge, existence and essence. It has been aberrantly set in contraposition to theology. A better word here is "prophecy," and such a term is far truer to Scripture and Tradition. There were no committees on ethics or social issues in the Patristic era.

But there was prophecy.

There was no such thing as "worldview" (Dilthey notwithstanding).

The Fathers just said "world."

So an Orthodox prophetic witness would protest all the usual things that Raboteau and other Orthodox ethicists protest. But it would also rail against gambling, usury, excessive profiteering. It would not shy from discussing the link between homosexuality and pederasty. It would do more warning against celebrity-worship, pornography and unchastity than organizing boycotts of SUVs, rare woods and fur. It would complain trenchantly about church absenteeism, and the failure of Christian parents to lock the world out of their homes. It would condemn the pride that is inherent in slander and gossip. It would also excoriate the anti-clericalism and anti-hierarchalism that are rife today.

Never once, in my entire ethicistical career, have I ever heard mentioned, in committee sessions in Harrisburg, DC and NYC, the base problems of swearing and church absenteeism. And yet, these two problems in particular are mentioned frequently in the Gospels and the Epistles, in contrast to the complete silence on social issues more amenable to modern sensibilities. "Swearing" (not to be confused with vulgarity) is of enormous "ethical" concern in the Sermon on the Mount and the Epistle of St. James. It is of little concern today.

And finally, an Orthodox prophecy would correctly identify the reason why all these things are happening. It would correctly identify, too, just where we are eschatologically -- and not simply limit this identification to that commonplace (and quite protestant) simplification of "inaugurated eschatology," the "now-and-not-yet."

It would say that the root problem of Orthodox Christians is their failure to pray as Jesus taught -- sacramentally and ascetically. It would say that the root problem of the world is its refusal to protect and listen to the Apostolic and Orthodox Church.

And it would say that the reason why the world is warming is because of the usury of dragons like Smaug, not because of all the poor people who have to gas up their cars to get to their McJobs.

It would say, too, that the Islamization of Europe calls not for a Crusade, but for repentance ... and this for the simple reason that any prophet, like Amos, would have no trouble recognizing the new Islamic Jihad for what it really is: another incarnation of the Assyrians, a harbinger and agent of Dies Irae.

This is what prophecy would probably say. And it goes without saying that this is not what Raboteau and all the respective denominational social and moral issues committees would ever say.

They wouldn't say it because they are ethicists.

And that is the problem of the age, my friends: ethics and prophecy do not mix. And I'm afraid they can't.

Fr. Jonathan Tobias is an Orthodox priest and edits the Second Terrace blog.

Read the entire article on the Second Terrace blog (new window will open).

Posted: 24-May-07



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