Sober reflections on Orthodox Christian thought, culture, and spirituality

  • Whence Cometh the Culture War

    Although the term “culture war” has been used to describe various phenomena throughout the twentieth century, it gained its current definition from the 1991 book of the same name, written by sociologist James Davison Hunter. The author documented the growing polarization within Western society as he observed two groups, rooted in opposing moral worldviews, emerging in the latter half of the twentieth century: the progressives (who understand truth to be a system of ever-evolving moral premises) and the orthodox (who believe that truth and morality are static because they are based on divine revelation). By 2006, conservative political pundit Bill O’Reilly had popularized the term “culture warrior,” conjuring images of American Republicans proclaiming “Deus Vult!” as they pushed back on currents such as gay marriage and the legalization of late-term abortions. The 2016 presidential election reflected the culmination of this battle, as both Clinton and Trump supporters attempted to claim the moral high ground—one as a champion of globalist progressivism, the other as the defender of nationalist conservatism.

    In recent years, these terms have been applied to tensions developing within the Orthodox Church. By and large, defenders of traditional moral values have been dubbed the culture warriors, frequently being described as reactionaries by their opponents. But is this a fair assessment? If a battle has begun, who invaded who?

    The most recent thing to raise the hackles of progressives in the Church is the “Statement on Same-Sex Relationships and Sexual Identity” released in July by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America at their 20th All-American Council. Most of what is found in the statement can be found in previous OCA statements: the 2013 “Synodal Affirmation of the Mystery of Marriage”; the 1992 “Synodal Affirmations on Marriage, Family, Sexuality, and the Sanctity of Life”; and even as far back as the 1975 declaration on morality at the 4th All-American Council in Cleveland (see John Meyendorrf’s defense of this statement in Witness to the World, pp. 116-117). The only new ideas found in the 2022 statement are a response to transgenderism, and a warning to Orthodox writers and teachers that contravening traditional morality may result in ecclesial sanction (likely in the form of a private or public warning, or possibly an epitimia prohibiting reception of the Eucharist until fruits of repentance are evident). It is thus surprising that writer Katherine Kelaidis would call the most recent statement “An Unprecedented Anti-LGBTQ Statement.” Such an ignorance of the OCA’s history is either tragic, or deliberate.

    Indeed, those defending traditional morality in the Church have always been around, and have always represented the vast majority. There is no evidence that the so-called culture war was initiated by recent converts from an Evangelical background. The converse is true: Christians of other stripes, longing for constancy, have converted to Orthodoxy precisely because our moral traditions have not changed over time. Nor were the present tensions triggered by a mass conversion of alt-right incels looking for a spiritual home. Contrary to the scant and rather anecdotal evidence offered by Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, no priest I know is reporting a swarm of neo-fascists darkening his doorway and clamoring for baptism.

    What is also derisible is the implication that other American jurisdictions have, in the past, maintained views contrary to that of the OCA. The 2003 “SCOBA Statement on Moral Crisis in Our Nation,” signed by all episcopal jurisdictional representatives and chaired by Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, clearly denounced same-sex unions and extramarital sexual acts as being contrary to Orthodox teaching. To be sure, that august assembly of hierarchs would have been surprised to learn they were, in fact, secretly Evangelicals or alt-right Orthobros. In fact, they merely echoed the views of their mother churches across the pond. We should not be surprised if, almost twenty years later, the Holy Synod of Greece has reacted vociferously against Archbishop Elpidophoros’ hijinks in Athens. Nor should we be shocked when we hear that Orthodox clergy and laity in Serbia, Romania, and Georgia have condemned the growing LGBTQ movements in their respective nations. This battle is not one we asked for; it was brought to us. As Malcom X opined, “I don’t call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.”

    The tactics employed by progressive Christians have remained the same for decades. First comes a seemingly innocent inquiry: “May I ask this simple question?” Appended to it is often a sentimental story about someone who believes his rights have been denied, his deepest desires quashed. After this, another question follows. And then another. Each one is a subtle deconstruction of traditional morality. At the same time, these queries allow the progressive to unite his supporters and assess his adversaries. In due time, as he is emboldened, the innocuous questions give way to blatant attacks, shaking tradition to its roots. By that time the subterfuge is revealed for what it always was; but the damage is done, confusion being sown in the minds of many. In contrast, the traditional Christian remains honest and transparent. He has nothing to hide because the tradition remains apparent: there is no hidden gnosis. His worldview is inviolable because it is grounded in permanent things as revealed by the One who is ever the same—”yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8).

    But someone might respond that morality has never been a fixed category within the Church in the first place. Dogma is static, they claim, while morality is dynamic. Such a dichotomy between dogma and ethikos (moralitas in Latin – yes, they are synonyms) has never prevailed in the Church. The earliest reference to “dogma” is in Acts 15, where the Holy Spirit revealed to the first apostolic council that sexual immorality, idolatry, and consuming blood are forbidden for all Christians. This is the same community that “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and communion, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers” (Acts 2:42). We cannot separate what a Christian believes from what he does. St. Basil made this abundantly clear in his description of written and unwritten tradition. In his treatise De Spiritu Sanctu, he states that all of tradition, both written and unwritten, both doctrinal and practical (such as making the sign of the Cross), “have the same force.” Yes, St. Basil would defend the dogma of the divinity of the Holy Spirit against deviant beliefs; but he would also leave the Church a set of canons to guide pastors in dealing with deviant behavior. Therein he condemns abortion, sodomy, adultery, polygamy, and bestiality with the same fervor as he does Macedonianism, Encratisim, and Novationism.

    It should be obvious to any student of philosophy that the major difference between progressive and traditional Orthodox Christians is that of first principles. Whereas the former take their cue from secular thought and political agendas—moving targets that develop over time—the latter are defined by divine revelation as encapsulated in Holy Tradition. The traditionalist operates on the assumption that truth does not change. In this way, the tension within the Church mirrors the broader culture war within society. However, the traditionalists do not believe that an Orthodox worldview can line up with conservative political thought on a one-to-one basis. The same sources that condemn sexual immorality also condemn greed and usury. And often the sources are silent on certain contemporary issues such as gun-control, freedom of speech, or democratic governance. One may reason to a certain conclusion from Holy Tradition, but that does not mean the answer is mutually exclusive or absolute in any way. In such cases, there can be room for discussion, so long as the interlocutors possess the same moral imagination.

    But beginning with first principles should not be seen as merely a return to the sources; it is also a methodology used to interpret and apply those sources. In After Virtue, Alisdair MacIntyre argued convincingly that subjective emotivism cannot be a reliable way to arrive at truth. Personal sentimentality is the most mercurial of judges, and should never be considered a valid methodology. But of course, his solution (at the time) was to prop up Ancient Greek philosophy as a set of first principles. As brilliant as Plato and Aristotle were, their ideas were not divinely revealed. Nor was Western civilization built primarily upon their thought (indebted to it as it was). We cannot found our faith upon the minds of great men.

    For an Orthodox Christian, our first principles begin with Jesus Christ. Throughout history, our Lord has dealt with his people. And in the incarnation, he entered into time and space itself for our sakes. He is the full disclosure of the invisible Father, and therefore the bedrock of all that comprises Holy Tradition. Hence an Orthodox methodology will necessarily be Christological. We begin with the question that Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Following the Chalcedonian Tome, we proclaim the paradox of the Theanthropos, whose human nature is consubstantial with all of ours. Our earthly experience must be defined by a paradisiacal telos. Christ shows us our human potential and vocation. He is our exemplar as well as our redeemer.

    Do we truly want to understand what behavior is expected of us? Do we really want to know what a human being is capable of? We must look to Jesus. In his humanity he hungered, but was never a glutton; he thirsted, but was never intoxicated; he suffered fatigue, but never became lazy; and he loved both men and women with all his heart, yet never sexualized his affection. Within the dogma of the incarnation as expressed in Holy Tradition we find the dogma of anthropology, and both the road and destination of theosis. In the person of Christ we discover the moral parameters that enable us to deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow Christ.