Immoral Inhospitality

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:

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

Filed under: WIT Posts Tagged: ethics, Orthodoxy