Most Christians who are received into the Eastern Orthodox Church as adults do so for the same reasons that others embrace the Roman Catholic Church: They are tired of the moral relativism or the shallow theological traditions of their former communions. These great historical Churches offer an oasis of clarity where the first questions are settled and the foundations do not have to be laid again in every generation. At least that’s the idea.
Alas, it is not always so. Orthodoxy and Catholicism have their share of dissenters, but this is nothing new to anyone who knows their history. Yet this realization often comes as a surprise – even a shock – to many Orthodox converts. They assume that the precepts of the moral tradition will be taught in our generation, as well. Sometimes they aren’t.
Analyzing the present culture and discerning how the moral tradition speaks to it is always a complex business, because people are dynamic beings. Truth is relational because Truth is a person: Jesus Christ. As such, any self-revelation of Christ – whether it be Him directly or through the words and work of His followers – requires much more than an outline of propositions. If it were that easy, we would all be fundamentalists.
This relational dimension however, is where it gets dicey. Christianity’s secular counterpart – Progressive morality – has impressive fluency in the language of human compassion, in which ideas that are inimical to the Christian moral tradition are hidden. It confuses believers and convinces secularists, and lies at the root of much internal dissent in the historic Christian churches.
This problem exists in some quarters of the Orthodox Churches in the United States today. Take for example Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s statement on abortion. (See A Patriarch who ‘Generally Speaking Respects Human Rights.') He leads the largest, by far, Orthodox jurisdiction in America, the Greek Orthodox. Here the patriarch appeals to personal humility to avoid restating what the Fathers of the Church make clear: Aborting a child is a grave moral crime. Appeals to humility might be morally compelling, but in this case it is misplaced.
Consider instead the teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church where the sanctity of all human life is unequivocally affirmed. (See The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church.) Or read the statement on this same problem issued in Belgrade by the Serbian Orthodox bishops earlier this month. They spoke of “a deep moral degradation, a great crisis of family life and lack of true faith in God among many people, though many of our people declare themselves as faithful Orthodox Christians at least in the elementary sense of that word.”
When human dignity ceases to be the source and focus of thought on cultural issues ,the moral foundations of culture are undermined. One reason why the Church Fathers were clear on the moral status of the unborn child (today they would be branded as “haters”) is that they understood if the unborn child was seen as a commodity, any kind of cruelty could be justified in the end. They fought for the elevation of human morality. Today, we fight against its devolution.
Sadly, this type of confusion often exists when American Orthodox Christians encounter other profoundly moral questions. Recently the Acton Institute co-sponsored a conference on poverty at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, the flagship of Orthodox seminaries in the United States. To its credit St. Vladimir’s, located in Yonkers, NY, resisted considerable behind the scenes pressure aimed at shutting it down. From whom did the pressure come? Orthodox progressives.
Acton’s approach to poverty places the native creativity of the poor at the center of any program to alleviate poverty. People have natural dynamism because they are created in the image and likeness of God – an insight that can only be grasped and responsibly applied if one first believes that all people have inherent value and dignity. This moral vision is the legacy of the Christian moral tradition comprehensively understood.
This understanding is a threat to the Progressive vision, however, because it lays bare the materialist vision of man (man is a biological machine; a better society is achieved by manipulating the mechanisms of state) that lies at its center. The reason for the confusion between the materialist (Progressive) and Christian vision is that the materialist vision borrows the language of the Christian tradition, thereby making it appear that the ideas it champions are indeed Christian and thus in accord with cultural history.
Ecumenical discourse between the churches (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant) that hold fast to the moral tradition will be fruitful if they stimulate internal reflection and prompt necessary corrections in our respective communions. The Acton-St. Vladimir’s conference reveals to the Orthodox that 1) thinking on poverty issues is underdeveloped; and 2) the objections to the conference relied solely on ideas drawn from Progressive ideology.
This fact is not lost on Orthodox moral conservatives and traditionalists. We call it the Progressive Captivity of the Orthodox Churches in America. There are historical reasons why we are late to the discussion (Turkish captivity, Communist tyranny, etc.). It led to some missteps along the way, such as joining the National Council of Churches (which functions primarily as the amen corner of the secular Left), but they are being corrected.
The hour has passed, however, when we can excuse participation with those who misappropriate the Christian moral vocabulary in order to cloak ideas and policies inimical to the Christian moral tradition. The moral confusion in the larger culture should not become our own.