Posts tagged with: Eastern Orthodoxy

At Ethika Politika today, I examine the recent critique by David Bentley Hart in the most recent issue of First Things of the use of natural law in public discourse in my article, “Natural Law, Public Policy, and the Uncanny Voice of Conscience.” Ultimately, I offer a measured critique—somewhat agreeing with, but mostly critical of Hart’s position—pointing out Hart’s oversight of the vital role of conscience in classic natural law theory.

What I find so bizarre, and have for some time now, is the relative ambivalence, at best, of many contemporary Orthodox writers when it comes to natural law. Hart, for example, hints that he might approve of natural law reasoning so long as all parties involved hold to a metaphysic that acknowledges “a harmony between cosmic and moral order, sustained by the divine goodness in which both participate.” However, even then he is not clear. Indeed, he begins his article by writing,

There is a long, rich, varied, and subtle tradition of natural law theory, almost none of which I find especially convincing, but most of which I acknowledge to be—according to the presuppositions of the intellectual world in which it was gestated—perfectly coherent. (emphasis mine)

Hart is not alone among Orthodox writers in this regard. With the notable exceptions of Stanley Harakas, Tristram Engelhardt, and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow (if there are others I apologize for my ignorance), contemporary Orthodox writers scarcely have employed natural law in their social ethics, if they even endorse it at all. Often it gets thrown under the bus in ill-advised false dichotomizing between all that is Eastern and therefore wonderful and all that is Western and therefore overly rationalistic. (more…)

On Catholic Online, Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse praised Pope Benedict XVI for his “deep understanding” of the Christian patrimony of Christendom. “The Christian foundation of culture should be self-evident to most, but in our post-Christian (and poorly catechized) age our historical memory has grown increasingly dim,” he said.

Jacobse, a priest in Naples, Fla., and president of the American Orthodox Institute, also lauded the pope for his work at healing the East-West divide between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. “The Orthodox wonder about Pope Benedict’s replacement,” Jacobse said. “If the new Pope is a cultural conservative in the mold of Popes Benedict and John Paul II, then we know that the rapprochement of the last four decades will continue. If not, it will be more difficult to find common ground.”

Benedict, he said, also had a deep understanding of the Orthodox patrimony within Christendom.

The Regensburg Address is perhaps the most penetrating analysis of the contribution of Hellenism to Christianity offered by a Western Christian in centuries. (more…)

Several of my friends on Facebook pages posted a link to David Dunn’s Huffington Post essay on gun control (An Eastern Orthodox Case for Banning Assault Weapons). As Dylan Pahman posted earlier today, Dunn, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, is to be commended for bringing the tradition of the Orthodox Church into conversation with contemporary issues such as gun control. As a technical matter, to say nothing for the credibility of his argument, it would be helpful if he understood the weapons he wants to ban. Contrary to what he thinks, semi-automatic weapons can’t “fire a dozen shots before a fallen deer even hits the ground.” Like many he confuses machine guns (which are illegal anyway) and semi-automatic weapons (not “assault weapons”). Putting this aside I have a couple of objections to his application of a principle from the canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church, economia, to the Second Amendment’s protection of the right to bear arms.

Dunn is correct in his assertion that economia says that the “letter of the law is subordinate to the needs of the soul.” But (and again, Dylan pointed this out) Dunn is a more than bit off when he says that a priest “might choose to ignore” the canonical tradition if “enforcing a canon is going to make someone feel ashamed, despair, or leave the church.” While there are times when a priest might tolerate a sin, what Dunn describes in his essay seems closer to moral expedience than pastoral prudence. Sin is still sin and while a priest might at times take a more indirect or a lenient approach to a person struggling with a particular sin, this is a matter of pastoral prudence in the case of an individual.  Dunn fundamentally misunderstands, and so misapplies, the canonical tradition to his topic. And he does so because he blurs the difference between pastoral prudence and public policy. Contrary to what radical feminism would have us believe, the personal is not political and this is evidently something that Dunn fails to realize. (more…)

387px-Rifle_RackUpdate (1/31/2013): David Dunn Responds to my post, Fr. Gregory’s post, and others: here.

Original post:

David J. Dunn yesterday wrote an interesting piece arguing for a ban on assault weapons from an Orthodox Christian perspective (here). First of all, I am happy to see any timely Orthodox engagement with contemporary social issues and applaud the effort. Furthermore, I respect his humility, as his bio statement reads: “his views reflect the diversity of Orthodox opinion on this issue, not any ‘official’ position of the church.” The same applies to my views as well.

I take issue with Dunn, in particular, in his use of the Orthodox principle of oikonomia. As he frames it, it would appear that he has not taken the time to understand it in historical context, distorting his application of the principle to the debate of firearm regulation. Indeed, he appears to have entirely misappropriated this principle, applying it in precisely the opposite manner in which it is traditionally intended. (more…)

Arabic icon of St. John of Damascus

Today (Dec. 4) is commemorated an important, though sometimes little-known, saint: St. John of Damascus. Not only is he important to Church history as a theologian, hymnographer, liturgist, and defender of Orthodoxy, but he is also important, I believe, to the history of liberty.

In a series of decrees from 726-729, the Roman (Byzantine) emperor Leo III the Isaurian declared that the making and veneration of religious icons, such as the one to the right, be banned as idolatrous and that all icons be removed from churches and destroyed. The Christian practice of making icons dates back to decorations of the catacombs in the early Church as well as illuminations in manuscripts of the Scriptures; indeed, many icons can be found in manuscripts of the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures and several icons have even been uncovered in the ruins of synagogues.

Naturally, most Christians of the time protested. Patriarch Germanos I of Constantinople was forced to resign and was replaced by Anastasios, who supported the emperor’s program. This began what is known as the iconoclastic controversy. It spanned over 100 years, and the iconoclasts in the Roman (Byzantine) empire martyred literally thousands of the Orthodox who peacefully resisted and destroyed countless works of sacred art that would be priceless today. Whatever one’s understanding of the place of icons in the Church today, this controversy was a clear abuse of government power that resulted in great tragedy. (more…)

V. Rev. Paul Jannakos offers an Orthodox perspective on the upcoming election:

As Orthodox Christians we bear witness to Christ in all dimensions of life. This includes participation in civic life, where as citizens of this country we elect into office those who aspire towards the work of public service on both the local and federal levels.

We do not deny that the democratic electoral process is a wonderful gift given to us as citizens of the United States. We thereby vote for those whom we feel would best govern our lands according to the values and principles we esteem as believers.

As we approach the upcoming Election Day, it is beneficial to be reminded about several key issues regarding the Orthodox Church and its role in the social and political life of its faithful.

Read more . . .

Last Friday, January 6, marked the Orthodox Christian feast of Theophany (Epiphany in the West). It commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ by John in the Jordan river, the manifestation of the Trinity to those present, and the sanctification of the waters through their contact with God incarnate.

Every year this last aspect of the feast stands as a reminder of the Christian viewpoint of God’s concern for the world he created. Indeed, according to a hymn from the Great Blessing of the Waters by St. Sophronios of Jerusalem, “Today the nature of the waters is sanctified.”

In the Orthodox tradition, there is a sense in which, while all of nature was made for the use and care of humankind, the ultimate purpose of the material world is sacramental. As the Russian Orthodox moral philosopher Vladamir Solovyov wrote, [M]atter has a right to be spiritualised.

This view contrasts with two rival views of ecology. One view, which continually crops up in popular culture, is that humans ultimately are doing more harm than good. Our efforts to master nature and use it for humanity’s benefit will cause its (and our) destruction someday. The second is the view against which the first is reacting. It is the modern view of a limitless use of natural resources with little concern for their preservation.

The vision given to us in Theophany is something else entirely. Through his baptism, Christ sanctifies the waters so that we might be sanctified by the waters of baptism. Water becomes a means by which humanity is perfected and the world as a whole reflects the glory of God to a greater degree.

In the Orthodox Church, this is not only true of the water, either. Bread and wine are used in the Eucharist, oil in Holy Unction and Chrismation (Confirmation), wood and gold and egg tempera paint in the making of holy icons, etc. The list goes on and on. The world is not meant to be left as is, nor is it meant to be carelessly depleted of its resources; it is meant to be spiritualized. It is a means and manifestation of divine grace and beauty.

How does this relate to economics? Economically, natural resources are material capital, and according to Vladimir Solovyov, we err if we seek to divorce them from their spiritual and moral purpose and make them independent, existing in and for themselves. He writes,

Alienation from the higher spiritual interests becomes inevitable as soon as the material side of human life is recognized to have an independent and unconditional value. One cannot serve two masters; and socialism naturally gives predominance to the principle under the banner of which the whole movement had originated, i.e. to the material principle. The domain of economic relations is entirely subordinated to it, and is recognised as the chief, the fundamental, the only real and decisive factor in the life of humanity. At this point the inner opposition between socialism and the bourgeois political economy disappears.

To misunderstand the material world, to fail to view it as the good creation of God with its own spiritual and moral purpose and, instead, to give it absolute value, ultimately leads to its degradation. It is, in fact, the definition of greed to value material things as something to be desired in and of themselves, apart from morality. The bourgeois that Solovyov criticizes are the type of people who act out of greed through manipulation of the market. The socialists, on the other hand, act out of greed through a call for revolution. Both, ultimately, make the same ecological error.

As Solovyov writes,

Socialism really stands on the same ground as the bourgeois régime hostile to it, namely, the supremacy of the material interest. Both have the same motto: “man liveth by bread alone.”

The Feast of Theophany, by contrast, calls Christians to adopt a higher, spiritual view of themselves and the world in which they live. And it is my contention that such a view is a far superior starting point for a Christian understanding of material capital. Anything less tends to degrade the world or ourselves.

For more on Vladimir Solovyov, check out the newest issue of Religion & Liberty.

Additionally, the Journal of Markets & Morality recently issued a Call for Publications on Orthodox Christian economic thought. Scholarly submissions on Vladimir Solovyov or Orthodox views of ecology would be welcome. View the full Call for Publications here.

For more on Orthodox Christianity and environmentalism, check out my post from last summer “Cosmos as Society.”

With Europe’s traditional moral framework – Christianity – under increasing attack, the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches are drawing closer in order to combat the forces of secularism and “Christophobia.” Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse looks at efforts to set aside long held theological disputes and forge a unity of action on social questions. Subscribe to the free weekly ANC and other Acton publications here.

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With the Rise of Militant Secularism, Rome and Moscow Make Common Cause

By Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse

The European religious press is abuzz over recent developments in Orthodox – Catholic relations that indicate both Churches are moving closer together. The diplomatic centerpiece of the activity would be a meeting of Pope Benedict and Patriarch Kyrill of the Russian Orthodox Church that was first proposed by Pope John Paul II but never realized. Some look to a meeting in 2013 which would mark the 1,700th anniversary of the signing of the Edict of Milan when Constantine lifted the persecution of Christians. It would be the first visit between the Pope of Rome and Patriarch of Moscow in history.

A few short years ago a visit between Pope and Patriarch seemed impossible because of lingering problems between the two Churches as they reasserted territorial claims and began the revival of the faith in post-Soviet Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere. The relationship grew tense at times and while far from resolved, a spirit of deepening cooperation has nevertheless emerged.  Both Benedict and Kyrill share the conviction that European culture must rediscover its Christian roots to turn back the secularism that threatens moral collapse.

Both men draw from a common moral history: Benedict witnessed the barbarism of Nazi Germany and Kyrill the decades long communist campaign to destroy all religious faith. It informs the central precept in their public ministry that all social policy be predicated on the recognition that every person has inherent dignity and rights bestowed by God, and that the philosophical materialism that grounds modern secularism will subsume the individual into either ideology or the state just as Nazism and Communism did. If Europe continues its secular drift, it is in danger of repeating the barbarism of the last century or of yielding to Islam.

The deepening relationship does not portend a union between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Roman Catholics are more optimistic about unity because they are less aware of the historical animus that exists between Catholics and Orthodox. Nevertheless, while the increasing cooperation shows the gravity of the threat posed by secularism, it also indicates that the sensitive historical exigencies can be addressed in appropriate ways and times and will not derail the more pressing mission.

The cooperation has also caused the Churches to examine assumptions of their own that may prove beneficial in the long run. The meaning of papal supremacy tops the list.

On the Orthodox side the claims to a universal jurisdictional supremacy of the Patriarch of Rome have been rejected since (indeed, was a cause of) the Great Schism of 1054 (see here and here . That said, the Orthodox see the Pope of Rome as the rightful Patriarch of the Church of Rome and could afford him a primacy of honor in a joint council but not jurisdiction.

On the other side, the Orthodox do not have a Magisterium, a centralized Church structure that speaks for all the Orthodox in the world. This has led to some fractious internal wrangling throughout the centuries although doctrine and teaching has remained remarkably consistent.

It will come as no surprise for anyone to know that the Orthodox have difficulties with some of the claims made by the Catholic Church concerning the precise responsibilities and the nature of the authority associated with the Bishop of Rome. The Catholic Church has long recognized this as a basic difference between the Orthodox and Catholic worlds. The rise of militant secularism, however, and the cultural challenges this creates for Orthodox and Catholic Christians alike, have focused everyone’s minds on how they can cooperate to address these issues of ethics and culture.

Protestants have a stake in the outcome as well particularly as attitudes have softened towards Rome due in large part to Pope John Paul II’s exemplary leadership during the collapse of communism in the last century. Protestant ecclesiology has no real place for priest or pope which makes the nature of discussions between them and the Catholics or Orthodox entirely different. Nevertheless, as the soul denying ramifications of secularism become more evident, an increasing number look to the Catholic and Orthodox Churches for leadership.

The most visible ambassador for the Orthodox Church is Oxford-educated Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of Volokomansk who runs the Department of External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church. Observers report that a deep respect and even genuine fondness exists between Hilarion and Benedict which has contributed to the recent thaw.

Both of them note with alarm the increasing attacks on the Christian faith in Europe and on Christians themselves in other parts of the world, a development they term “Christophobia.” Hilarion brought these points forward several years back when he first challenged the European Union for omitting any mention of the Christian roots of European civilization in the EU Constitution. That earned him considerable worldwide notice and he has become increasingly outspoken towards any attempts to silence the Christian testimony or dim the historical memory of Christendom.

From the Orthodox side it is clear that the leadership that deals with the concrete issues that affect the decline of the Christian West is emerging from Moscow. One reason is the sheer size of the renewed Russian Orthodox Church. The deeper reason however, is that the Russians have direct experience with the suffering and death that ensues when the light of the Christian faith is vanquished from culture.

Decades before the fall of Communism was even a conceptual possibility for most people, Pope John Paul II prophesied that the regeneration of Europe would come from Russia. At the time many people thought it was the misguided ramblings of a misguided man. It is looking like he knew more than his critics. We are fortunate to have these two leaders, Benedict and Kyrill, to help guide us through the coming difficulties.

Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse is an Orthodox priest in the Antiochian Archdiocese of North and South America. He is president of the American Orthodox Institute and serves on the board of the Institute for Religion and Democracy. He writes frequently on social and cultural issues on his blog

In the current issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality (14.1), Brian K. Strow and Claudia W. Strow challenge the economic impact of our definition of society in their article, “Social Choice: The Neighborhood Effect.” It occurred to me that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew implicitly challenges our definition of society on a different, though similar, level than Strow and Strow.  Strow and Strow analyze the changing results of economic utility functions based upon one’s definition of human society. In his book Encountering the Mystery (2008), His All-Holiness, however, broadens our definition of society not merely on the basis of relationship, geography, or voluntary associations, but on the basis of ontological groupings. This is not to say that he would equate a human child and a dog (or a dog and a flower, for that matter), but that, for the Patriarch, society includes the entire ontological hierarchy of all creation.

This perspective produces interesting results. For example, one may examine the case in recent years when Canada was still paying the state of Michigan to put Canadian trash in its landfills. Financially, Michigan was benefiting from the deal, but environmentally Canada succeeded in minimizing its trash and retaining unused landfill capacity. Economically, both can be considered capital, but they improve the respective societies in differing ways. The financial benefit of Michigan was purely a human benefit, whereas the environmental benefit of Canada benefited humans, animals, plants, air, and soil alike, even if only on a marginal level. As a country, rather than a state, Canada’s definition of society was not only broader in terms of humanity (whether relationally, geographically, or associatively), but also in terms of all creation.

However, as Strow and Strow’s analysis shows, if one were to expand the definition of society to the whole world, Canada did not succeed in producing any environmental benefit (the quantity of total world trash was not diminished at all, only geographically relocated). However, Michigan’s financial gain may have redistributed wealth in a way that still (again marginally) improved the world as a whole (raising per capita income, perhaps), while globally having an indifferent effect upon the environment.

The challenge of His All-Holiness Bartholomew, I believe, is to define society as broadly as possible, not only in terms of relationship, geography, or association, moving from individual to family to state to country to the world, but also moving from particular (one human) to group (family, state, or country) to species (all humanity) to genus (all animals or even all living things) to most general genus (all creation), to use classical categories. If one seeks to find a final say in the Patriarch’s work with regards to the relationship between economics and ecology, one may have many criticisms. However, if one takes his work as a starting point of discussion toward a Christian synthesis between these two disciplines, I believe one finds fertile ground for cultivating a productive engagement of economics and ecology on a global basis with such a cosmic view of society.


The Patriarch’s book Encountering the Mystery is published by Doubleday Religion and can be purchased at Amazon. The scope of the book is far broader than the subject at hand, but chapter VI, “The Wonder of Creation,” addresses his view of the relationship between economics and ecology from an Orthodox Christian perspective in detail. Additionally, his many talks, letters, and encyclicals related to environmentalism can be found here.

For more on Orthodoxy and Environmentalism, Very Rev. Fr. Michael Butler taught a session at this year’s Acton University, which can be accessed here.

For more on the ecological relationship of humanity to creation as a whole from a Christian perspective, see also Benjamin B. Philips, “A Creature among Creatures or Lord of Creation?” in the Symposium section of the current issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality.

You can subscribe to the Journal of Markets & Morality here.

Metropolitan Jonah

Julia Duin, a veteran religion reporter, has written a profile of the embattled leader of the Orthodox Church in America, Metropolitan Jonah, for the Washington Post weekend edition. She does an admirable and fair job of not only telling us about this American-born bishop but explaining why his short tenure has sparked so much controversy within the various Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States. (Let me bring to your attention, right away, that Jonah is our plenary speaker on June 16 at Acton University.)

The metropolitan’s outspoken stances on issues like marriage and abortion, and his desire to operate from a base in Washington, has sparked a palace revolt in the OCA. As Duin puts it:

Jonah’s move to Washington strikes at the core of the traditional Eastern Orthodox reluctance to be on the front lines of the culture wars, much less political conflicts. The religion’s 1 million American adherents, who remain split into 20 separate ethnic groups, are more likely known to the general public as sponsors of bazaars featuring Slavic or Mediterranean food, crafts and dancing than as societal firebrands.

“Orthodox Christianity tends to be heavily theological and more concerned with matters of doctrine, liturgy and belief than evangelical Protestants and certainly the conservative Christian right,” said Rabbi Niles Goldstein, a senior fellow at the Utah-based Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy. “They’re wrestling with how to find this balance between Christianity and activism, which makes it difficult for them to speak with a unified voice on social policy and foreign affairs.”

But Jonah sees American Orthodoxy at a crossroads where the choice is either to remain in ethnic enclaves and be irrelevant or jump into the stream of culture and politics and make a difference. He dreams of Orthodox Americans speaking out “as a conscience for the culture.” They would have clout in Congress, advocating for persecuted Orthodox around the world, such as the Egyptian Copts. They would stand equal with evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics in opposing abortion, same-sex marriage, cloning and euthanasia.

Fr. Gregory Jensen, a writer for Acton News & Commentary and contributor to this blog, says the battle that Jonah is waging goes beyond polemics on “hot button” issues. On his Koinonia blog, Fr. Gregory says the real fight is whether or not the Orthodox Church will proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the public square. I agree with his assessment wholeheartedly.

Fr. Gregory:

Especially in the historical centers of American Orthodox experience, what is unique to the person or the parish has often been minimized if not ignored and even rejected. Our managerial approach to Church polity has historically often confused communion with conformity and consensus with capitulation to the group. And it has done so to the detriment of the individual believer (clergy AND laity), parish and diocese. To those who have become conditioned to think of Church life as a zero sum game (which more often than not means “I” lose and “they” win) an entrepreneurial approach, that is to say an unapologetic evangelical approach that embraces an explicit proclamation of the Gospel in the public square, would be terrifying. We are wrong when we think that new people, new ideas, can only come at our expense.

So I’m clear, this fear is understandable but wrong and based in a Satanic lie and must not be allowed to take hold in our hearts, in our parishes or our dioceses.

Yes, there is a power struggle in the OCA and really in all the Orthodox jurisdictions in America. I would even suggest that this conflict is being played out internationally among all the Orthodox Churches and it is happening for the same reasons we see it in America—we’ve adopted an implicit zero sum model of Church that confuses position with self-aggrandizement. But in Christ power, ecclesiastical or civil, is always in the service of others and His promise to us is that we will spread to the ends of the earth and always overcome the powers of sin and death.

Read “Metropolitan Jonah goes to Washington” in the Post.