The measure of all things is Christ.
Problem: While on Christmas vacation from college, my daughter told me that one of her professors said that sex outside marriage was not against the "natural law." In fact, there was no "natural law" - but "anything goes." I have tried to bring up my children to be good Orthodox Christians. What am I to do?
Solution: By all means continue to proclaim the Gospel teachings, but be sure not to base your moral system on some so-called 'natural law' as described by science. You see, your daughter's college professor is correct. Extra-marital sex is not against the natural law as defined by science. In science, when we speak of natural we mean what is "in nature." In nature, many types of behaviors exist. There are many varieties that we see in our own culture and even more varieties that we can see in cross cultural comparisons. Sociological and anthropological studies lead the way here. Thus monogamy, polygamy, war, murder, chastity, and homosexuality, etc., are all equally "lawful in nature" because they all exist. For example, we may observe that in a certain culture, homosexual behavior occurs and thereby deviates from what the average individual does. The fact that it exists means it is natural, as natural as a sunrise or an earthquake, a flower or a flood. Scientists view such a behavior merely as a statistic. A certain percentage of the population engage in homosexual behavior and is thus natural.
Science has spoken! All varieties of sexual behavior are "natural." But this view is entirely different from the definition of what is natural to man that God has revealed to us. Science and the Church are not opposed, they are simply using two different definitions of the term: natural.
It is not uncommon to consider however that in the depth of conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose on himself but which holds him to obedience. Christian ethics would imply that all evolution of morals and every type of life must be kept within the guidelines and boundaries imposed by the immutable principal based on every person's inherent sense of right and wrong.
In the course of history whenever the Roman Church (or any other Church) has based its faith, dogma or morals on science, she has been terribly embarrassed. Copernicus, a 16th century churchman and scientist, was considered a heretic for stating the sun was the center of the universe, instead of the earth as the theologians taught. This earth-centered universe fit well with the theological view of man as the greatest of God's material creations, who thereby must reside at the center or focal point of the universe. Galileo too, ran into difficulty defending the Copernican position. But, as we know, the earth is not the center of the universe, and whether it is or not has nothing to do with commitment to Christ, holding fast to His teachings or morality.
Natural as Understood by the Church
Mankind is meant for paradise, and paradise is understood as life in and with God that lasts for all eternity. (Morelli, 2006). The church fathers tell us what is "natural" for man is his original purpose. St. John of Damascus tells us:
As a golden seal to this plain homily, we will add a brief account of the way in which that which is most precious of all that God has created — the noetic and intelligent creature, man — has been made, alone among created beings, in God's image and likeness (cf. Genesis 1:26). First, everyman is said to be made in the image of God as regards the dignity of his intellect and soul ... and endowed with free will...
Further, St. John of Damascus taught this dignity natural to man carries with it a responsibility toward holiness:
Every man possesses that which is according to the image of God, "for the gifts of God are irrevocable" (cf. Romans 11:29). But only a few — those who are virtuous and holy and have imitated the goodness of God to the limit of human powers — possess that which is according to the likenesses of God" (Philokalia III).
The words of St. Simeon the New Theologian should be kept in mind then as a guide to our behavior, not as a scientific statistic, but looking to paradise, for which we were originally created:
It is right for us to place the yoke of Christ's commandments on our shoulders from the start; and we should not resist or hang back. On the contrary, we should walk straight ahead wholeheartedly obedient to them in truth the new paradise of God, until the Son comes to dwell in us with the Father through the Holy Spirit" (Philokalia IV).
The Parental or Pastoral Response
Well, for you as a parent or for a counselor or pastor, there would be two important issues left. One would be concern for the breakdown of society: indifference, moral relativism secularism and syncretism (Morelli, 2008) are the fruits of promoting or condoning behavior based on the scientific statistical definition of what is natural and therefore acceptable, ethical and moral.
Christ our Guidepost
Most important however, is the second issue. It is really not an issue at all because it is at the apex of our lives - this is our Orthodox commitment to Christ. We do not obey a proscription, sexual or otherwise, because it conforms or does not conform to a scientific definition of natural law. We obey according to the measure of our commitment to Christ. The measure of this commitment will be based of Christ indwelling the depth of hearts and sincerity of our prayer. It would be well to keep in mind what our holy fathers have taught us - obedience leads to faith and prayer, and in turn, faith and prayer lead to obedience. Being excellent psychologists, the fathers tell us that the main pitfalls to prayer and obedience to God's will are forgetfulness, ignorance and laziness. Possibly we could sum up these three categories into two: knowledge and perseverance (or persistence). Real knowledge and perseverance in living the Christian spiritual-moral life can only come from the perspective of Christ and His Church.
So you see, your daughter may be getting a very valuable college education, if she at least learns that the Orthodox Christian life, sexual or otherwise, cannot be proved by the 'natural law' as defined by science, but what is 'natural' for us in terms of the purpose of which God originally created us. You as her parent along with her pastor, and the entire Church, can add to her knowledge by teaching and witnessing the message of the Gospels, the commandments, the beatitudes, what Our Lord called the "narrow path" leading to our sharing of the Light of Christ. It is by the illumination of Christ that we will become as "little children"; that we will find the Kingdom of God.
This kingdom , as the evangelists tell us, is found in our hearts. I might add that it is not found in a science textbook, unless the "laws of nature" God created are illumined by his Divine light.
"The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge" (Psalm 19: 1-2).
Morelli, G. (2006, December 21. The Ethos of Orthodox Christian Healing.http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliHealing.php.
Morelli, G. (2008, February 12). Smart Parenting X. Combating Secularism's Most Serious Sin: Indifference. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles8/Morelli-Smart-PartentingX.php.
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds.). (1986). The Philokalia, Volume 3: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Markarios of Corinth . London: Faber and Faber.
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds.). (1995). The Philokalia, Volume 4: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Markarios of Corinth. London: Faber and Faber.
Adapted from an article written for "Word Magazine," a publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. April 1976.
V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist, Coordinator of the Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling Ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, (www.antiochian.org/counseling-ministries) and Religion Coordinator (and Antiochian Archdiocesan Liaison) of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion. Fr. George is Assistant Pastor of St. George's Antiochian Orthodox Church, San Diego, California.