Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Arida, scholars, and apostates on Crete council document

I don't post much from Public Orthodoxy. Mainly because of the "if you have nothing nice to say" rule I learned in my youth. If you read recent articles they continue their battle against so-called Orthodox fundamentalism (you might remember it culminating in an AFR debate here last summer), fair treatment of Uniates, and now not being too hard on cohabitation.

(Public Orthodoxy) - The authors of ‘The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World’ are to be commended for framing our shared ecclesial mission as one of making present the eschatological hope of the new creation in which “race, gender, age, social, or any other condition” are no bar to shared eucharistic celebration. The document rightly reminds us that “the purpose of the incarnation … is the deification of the human person” which establishes the dignity of all persons, and demands its protection. As co-workers with God, the church and its members enter into “common service together with all people of good will,” seeking to establish peace, justice (3, 6), and social solidarity (6.4, 6.5, 6.6), gifts of the Holy Spirit which come from God (3.2) but “also depend on human synergy” (3.3). These gifts, and this work, is required for the flourishing of human dignity.

The document would be strengthened by making an unqualified commitment to human rights, while simultaneously acknowledging that such rights, as they are understood by the international community, are the minimum required for the flourishing of human dignity. The church’s mission then, is aligned with shared works of justice and peace, but also extends to both persons and communities, embodying and encouraging communities that bear the fruits of the Spirit, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” (Gal 5:22-23) which form the virtues of the Christian life.

The document leaves the impression that the Orthodox mission is to defend human dignity only when it does not conflict with its own interest. This is especially found in the condemnation of discrimination. Denouncing violence and injustice, hatred, enmity or intolerance (5.1), “The Orthodox Church confesses that every person, regardless of color, religion, race, gender, ethnicity, and language, is created in the image and likeness of God, and enjoys equal rights in society” (5.2). What follows in the section 3 is, then, surprising: “The Church, in the spirit of respecting human rights and equal treatment of all values the application of these principles in the light of her teaching on the sacraments, the family, the role of both genders in the Church, and the overall principles of Church tradition. The Church has the right to proclaim and witness to her teaching in the public sphere.” In other words: since tradition appears to teach practices which advocates of human rights consider discriminatory, the church not only maintains the application of its own principles, but reserves the right to preach these publicly. I don't understand what is surprising here. The syntactical formation of these sentences doesn't help in unpacking what they mean. Is there opposition to the Church showing discernment in what modernity calls 'life choices' when she believes those choices actually diminish the dignity of that person? If the Church makes no such discriminatory pronouncements, how are we to know what she believes or the untoward effects of those decisions?

The document could be strengthened by acknowledging that some traditions found in the church, itself, are historically and culturally dependent and have, at times, diminished the dignity of the other. For instance, the boldness, honesty, and humility of the Inter-orthodox Rhodes Consultation of 1988, “The Place of Women in the Orthodox Church,” acknowledges that “owing to human weakness and sinfulness, Christian communities have not always and in all places been able to suppress effectively ideas, manners, and customs, historical developments and social conditions which have resulted in practical discrimination against women” (The Place of Women in the Orthodox Church, B.VII.24). Furthermore, Section 6.14 is overly broad. It condemns efforts “to legalize and in certain Christian communities to justify theologically other forms of human cohabitation” as undermining the “divinely-granted institution of the family,” without ever mentioning that such arrangements may be desired or necessary for companionship, financial stability, or especially in response to the threat of family violence which puts women and children in particular jeopardy. Such living arrangements, when undertaken with love and mutual respect, can also include meaningful religious development for the people involved: committed parish/ecclesial involvement, shared devotional piety, and the cultivation of life lived in the service of love of God. Do we truly think the Church was trying to say that a woman in an abusive relationship would read her sleeping at her sister's house until she sorts things out as being dismissed by the Council? I also have to wonder about the words "such arrangements may be desired or necessary for companionship." In a non-Orthodox setting such wording has been code for different configurations that the Church would frown upon. What are these "living arrangements, when undertaken with love and mutual respect?" Dare I say this sounds like the exact cohabitation the Council is denouncing.

Thus, the document’s claims to solidarity, shared anxiety and commitment to compassion for all of God’s creation are undermined by its selective understanding of human rights and its refusal to acknowledge the shortcomings of Orthodox in these areas. It undermines the longstanding engagement of Orthodox theologians and pastors with the world, shaped by the world, so that it may exist and live for the life of the world. Unfortunately, by repeated contrasts between the church and a secular, violent, morally-lax world, this document tends to encourage a church turned in on itself rather than turned outward to engage truly in service. It is unfortunate, but perhaps telling, that “freedom understood as permissiveness” (8.13) is corrected simply by a reminder that freedom comes with responsibility. Rather, in light of the deifying purpose of the Incarnation, and the hope it offers, would that this document offered a vision of freedom for the other, freedom not to fear the “infinite anxiety” (2.2) which fills humanity, but freedom to love the other with “joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Again, this document speaks to some mystery group but fails to identify of whom they are speaking. Who is the Church leaving out? The Church is not being selective in application, it is being uniform in espousing Gospel truths. There is a thread running through Public Orthodoxy posts that sees the Church as being us vs. them. They see it as counterproductive and unwelcoming to demarcate what modernity professes from what the Church proclaims. I have no such qualms. In fact I tend to think such engagement as has been previously suggested invites a muddled message and syncretism.

Fr. Robert M. Arida is rector and dean of Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in Boston.

Susan Ashbrook Harvey is Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University.

David Dunn is an independent scholar who writes on Orthodoxy and religion and politics.

Maria McDowell, an independent scholar of Christian ethics and Orthodox theology, belonged for many years to the Orthodox Church and is now a communicant in the Episcopal Church U.S.A.

Teva Regule is a doctoral candidate in the theology department at Boston College.

Bryce E. Rich is a doctoral candidate in theology at the University of Chicago.

This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Special Project on the Holy and Great Council and published by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.


  1. A few observations.
    1. When these "scholarly" manifestos appear from time to time, I'm always grateful that none of the scholars practice their arts at any of our seminaries.
    2. What is the "international community"? It obviously doesn't include, say, Russia, Greece or Georgia. It seems to mean "Western post-Christian nations".
    3. What do "human rights" mean when the list of "human rights" is adjusted every few years by political bodies? In that situation it's hard to say that the term has any philosophical content.
    4. As with claims of "Orthodox fundamentalism", I find myself wanting over and over to ask, "Would you give me some examples?". In this case, how about spelling out what arrangements are "desired or necessary for companionship"? The whole essay is full of slithery phrases.

  2. Also, why does Fordham always seem to come into these things? (I just read the "published by" notice at the end of the essay)

  3. I am reminded of George Orwell's quote:

    "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink."

  4. Sadly the conciliar document on marriage is weak enough to invite this kind of savage pseudo-scholarly critique.

  5. Though I don't agree with everything in it, I found Fr. Andrew Louth's essay on the Council at Public Orthodoxy much better than the rest.

  6. AbbaMoses:

    Fordham's misnamed "Orthodox Studies Center" is lead and funded by folks who would reform the Church along modernist lines - this is widely known (Demacopoulos himself is director of it currently).

    Much more of a problem is Arida, and his bishops who tolerate his subversive (of the Church's normative anthropology, ontology, and moral norms) reform agenda. It goes back to the widely known compromising these bishops have indulged in their own ranks for 50 years (at least).

    In the end, it is of course symptomatic of that particular (mostly NE) Orthodox "liberal" (though that term is flawed in that its myriad connotations are too much of a distraction) who have long ago given too much to the world and its insatiable demand for the soul, and now are looking for any and all ways to justify the worlds judgments as to what a human being is - which of course has implications as to what our sexuality is and how it should be ordered...

    To put it simply: It's all about sex, sex, and more sex with these folks, and of course the reforming the Church's "fundamentalist" understanding and ascetic practice...

  7. "of making present the eschatological hope of the new creation in which “race, gender, age, social, or any other condition” are no bar to shared eucharistic celebration." "OR ANY OTHER CONDITION"?!

  8. "of making present the eschatological hope of the new creation in which “race, gender, age, social, or any other condition” are no bar to shared eucharistic celebration." "OR ANY OTHER CONDITION"?!

  9. Gregory,

    The "any other condition" is of course assumed to mean (and as it stands the language is too ambiguous to mean anything) by the reformers (Arida and his allies) to mean our "identity" - which of course means our sexual identity.

    The anthropology is of course modern and self-willed. Even if you accept homosexualism as a biological fact/given, you can not accept it's realization/acting out in the classical ascetical Truth of the Church (just as I can't accept my heterosexual and "born with" desire to procreate with as many women as I can in a day).

    These reformers of course know this, they just want what they want - so they are intentionally subversive...

  10. Jake,
    As a repentant (and forever repenting) Orthodox gay man I agree with you. My point was: what *doesn't* that phrase open the door to? What madness!

  11. Gegory,

    Yep. Of course, "they" (those who think in this way) would say that they are speaking in terms of not judging your neighbor and the Kingdom being open and available to anyone no matter the sin/condition/circumstance as long as they are willing to open themselves to it. Strangely however, these well intentioned folks don't seem to be willing (or able?) to admit the "unintended consequences" of such ambiguous language.

    In the end, it takes inSpirited leadership to see and navigate around the danger(s) of language (and the "spirit of the age"), and the fact is that this EPcate (Bartholomew and everyone under him) have not been able to do this for (quite literally) a 100 years or so now...

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